REVIEWED BY PRISCILLA BOURGOINE
The Point of Vanishing: A Memoir of Two Years in Solitude by Howard Axelrod/Beacon Press/September 2015/ISBN:978-0-8070-7546-3/paperback/208 pgs.
Debut memoirist Howard Axelrod offers a suspenseful and thought-provoking read. I was surprised to find that a book about living in solitude would captivate me and have me hanging on every word. Long after finishing his story, the imagery and narrative resonates.
I wasn’t sure I wanted to read about a man’s insights about choosing to live in the deep woods of northern Vermont for slightly over two hundred pages. I am much more drawn to women’s experiences. But Axelrod’s journey is a human one. Not a gender one. At some point in our lives, most of us have faced loss. Loss splits our life into the Before and the After. After the loss has occurred, we are faced with figuring out who we will be and how we will we go forward in the world. Axelrod’s After occurs when a random accident on the basketball court during his junior year at Harvard results in a poke in the eye that immediately severs Howard’s optic nerve, leaving him irreversibly blind in his right eye. With his depth perception gone for good, Axelrod removes himself from mainstream civilization to figure out how to negotiate a world he can no longer see in three-dimension.
Eventually, he ends up renting a remote cabin in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, where he explores and discovers his true self. His journey is a mediation on the search for identity.
It’s also a love story. Axelrod courageously faces two long and harsh winters in an extremely isolated cabin in the woods. However, this is not a how-to manual. This is not a self-help guide. Instead, it is through the act of reading Mr. Axelrod’s beautiful prose and inhabiting his own journey of self-discovery that the reader, too, becomes changed.
This memoir made me begin to inquire about my own life, who I am and how I choose to live in harmony with my essential self. Howard’s disarming insights about himself and life offered me the opportunity to contemplate the very things of my own existence that are often hard to language. Axelrod articulates the hard to nail-down elements of soul-searching and guides us with his own example.
I was surprised by how he managed to offer suspense in the opening pages and sustain that tension right to the last word. I could not put the memoir down—couldn’t stop to even go on my daily walk–until I finished.
“The house wasn’t something you stumbled upon by accident. It wasn’t something you passed going anywhere else. To get there you drove through Glover, Vermont—a general store, no traffic light, one Busy Bee Diner—climbed along switchbacks through maples, evergreens, and birches, then turned left onto a wide dirt road. You passed the barn and blue silo of the Mooreland dairy farm, snaked past a few scattered house and trailers, then followed deeper into the woods, the maples tapped, tubed, and strung together like prisoners on a chain gang, as it was early March now, sugar season. A few miles in, at a mailbox nobody used, you forked off the wide dirt road onto an unmaintained narrow lane, the deeper snow tugging at your car as though part of a different gravity. You slipped through a tunnel of overhanging trees, came to an empty field bordered by tall pines, then passed an uninhabited house, its siding job left unfinished, then followed as the road dwindled into what seemed only the ghost of a road—no car tracks but your own, the twin trail in the snow behind you like a vestige of the two ruts in summer, when the weeds between them would grow taller than your hood. A small meadow opened on your left, three gnarled apple trees glimmering in the sunlight like chandeliers, and beyond the meadow was the beginning again of forest, with little promise of a house at all. From there, just inside the buried fence posts, you walked. And at the bottom of the steep grade, with its sky-blue paint flaking, its lines badly canted, sat the two-story house, like a sunken ship.”
This book will now be in my gift-giving line up because reading it isn’t simply about entering the story’s trance; it’s about giving yourself your own exploration time in the woods. I dare you to read The Point of Vanishing and not be affected.
Priscilla Bourgoine practices as a psychotherapist in a group practice outside of Boston and offers remote therapy to clients through the Manhattan-based company, Abilto. She earned a MSW from the University of Connecticut and earned an MFA in creative writing from Queens University of Charlotte. She is an editor of creative non-fiction and fiction for r.kv.r.y. Quarterly Literary Journal and Reviews Editor for Change Seven. Her work has appeared in Brain, Child; Germ Literary Magazine; Change Seven; and elsewhere. Currently, she is writing her memoir, The Floating World, about coping with the sudden death of her middle child, through a scholarship in Boston’s Grub Street Memoir Incubator Program 2015-2016. She lives in southern New Hampshire with her husband.